If I could have one superpower, I think it would be to sing like Nao. Give the opening track of her new album, ‘Saturn’, a listen and you’ll understand why. Within the first seconds of ‘Another Lifetime’, the East London musician manages to combine tender longing and angelic breathiness in one fell swoop, before crescendo-ing to a belting chorus of nimble vocal runs and heart-felt regret. The song, like the entirety of Nao’s second studio album, is mesmerizing.
Nao’s signature, silky-smooth voice has gained her a cult following since the release of her debut album ‘For All We Know’ in 2016. Possessing a range that spans both girlish highs and husky lows, the singer, song-writer, producer and now record label owner has collaborated with the likes of Nile Rodgers, Stormzy and Mura Masa (stop what you’re doing this instant and go and listen to ‘Firefly’ and ‘Complicated’, please).
While ‘For All We Know’ was firmly within Nao’s self-dubbed brand of ‘wonky funk’, ‘Saturn’ welcomes a more contemplative, R&B focused style. Astrology looms large on this record, with a title inspired by the theory of the ‘Saturn return’ – the cosmic rite of passage said to occur every 29 years, marking the next stage in a person’s adult life. In ‘When Saturn Returns – Interlude’, we are told it is about letting go of what doesn’t serve you, such as past relationships, jobs or regrets.
Whether you buy into the astrological theories or not, it’s hard to deny the pull of songs like ‘Orbit’. “Kind of sad but you remind me / You remind me of a love that I once knew” reads a bit like a modern take on Usher’s ‘U Remind Me’, mixing up D’Angelo-inspired free-styles and celestial sounds. ‘Yellow of the Sun’ goes much in the same vein, sonically soaring to the stars. The album’s title track, ‘Saturn’, meanwhile, sees the meeting of two of the smoothest vocalists in the UK right now, thanks to Kwab’s soulful timbre.
Nao’s ‘Saturn’ is a rejuvenating album – a meaningful body of work that channels something deeper than the throw-away cycle of modern chart music. There’s a definite awareness of today’s pop influences though, notably on the flirtatious ‘Gabriel’: “I want you to know that I can’t get enough / My kryptonite lover, and you’re such a rush”, Nao coos over rhythmic guitars. ‘Saturn’ also incorporates the infectious sounds of Afrobeats – pop’s most successful cross-over genre of recent years – in ‘Drive and Disconnect’ and ‘If You Ever’, slicing through the album’s ballads with energy and groove.
‘Make It Out Alive’ marks the intersection of Nao’s spaced-out odyssey and R&B sass as the record’s break-up song. “House burnt down, burnt down to the fucking ground / I don’t even care if I make it out” provides a rare burst of anger in ‘Saturn’. Relationship drama is given the full Nao treatment here – any hint of negativity is soothed by a duet with Kendrick Lamar’s label mate, SiR, and turned into a complete vibe.
On the album’s closing track, ‘A Life Like This’, Nao muses “I was in a dream / whilst life was happening to me”, contemplating past mistakes and her plans for the future, Saturn return-style. Such is the nature of this beautiful body of work; Nao’s voice will move you as it ascends octaves, her electro-R&B songs forcing you to reflect and rejoice. As albums go, ‘Saturn’ is a neo-soul dream.